Minimalism with a Credit Card

John Haber
in New York City

Better Homes and the Philadelphia Wireman

Aspects, Forms, and Figures

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? If you remember it as the title of Pop Art by Richard Hamilton, good for you. And if you answered irony, however, you are all set for a headlong rush through fifty years of loaded questions, in "Better Homes."

Clement Greenberg famously opposed abstraction to kitsch. Postmodern critics continued Greenberg's critique of capitalism, but by seeing fine art as part of the problem. Now, the market has all but taken over, and it is not bringing utopia. Can a new round of Pop Art and irony help? Perhaps, but artists have been exploiting kitsch more than ever. And the results are massive installations and even more massive Chelsea galleries. Alice Konitz's Table for a Family of Three Smokers (Bellwether, 2007)

Maybe formalism and kitsch need to reach an accommodation. One could call it Minimalism with a credit card. The Philadelphia Wireman and a group show from a few years back help trace love of the humble object. One takes care of used appliances, while "Aspects, Forms, and Figures" seeks a beauty akin to abstraction in the things of this world. Sure, call art just another part of commodity culture. I shall look at my VISA bill with new respect.

Yesterday's homes

With his bodybuilder in an interior clipped from Ladies Home Journal, holding a Tootsie Roll Pop as if posing for the judges, Richard Hamilton set Pop Art on track in England before Americans even had a chance to try. He also left no doubt how to take the question in the work's title, back when Robert Rauschenberg preferred an enigma like Rebus. Back then, Andy Warhol, Alfred Leslie, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and George Segal were about to mine popular culture for a space between tragedy and joy. Hamilton was not going anywhere near there, but his disdain anticipates a generation of appropriation art to come, from Barbara Kruger and I Shop Therefore I Am to the Young British Artists. He is not on view at SculptureCenter. Still, just when you thought that you could let down your guard, his legacy is back.

As curator, Ruba Katrib aims to encompass the diminished role of the family, the solitude of urban life, the First World's obsession with work and career, the stifling influence of the media and marketing, the way " 'things' increasingly comprise our identities," and the protest against it all of "material feminists." Oh, and only fifty years after the last episode of Leave It to Beaver, a household is no longer defined by a married couple with two children. All this for fifteen artists and not many more works? The strange part is not how much they cover, but how far they seem out of touch. The show tries to get away from business as usual, with a global reach that extends to artists from Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe. Yet it has a very hard time engaging the present.

The show has real strengths. It takes over the entire building, from the main hall to the basement tunnels, without overcrowding. Yet almost all of it, like Hamilton, has a problem with doubt or reserve. A 1980 mixed media by E'wao Kagoshima takes the Brit's collage and pile on the nudity, as if determined to do today's homes one better. Kagoshima also opens and typifies "Better Homes." Where Hamilton takes a shotgun blast to domesticity, it goes for buckshot, and the result is no less simplistic.

A lithograph by Robert Gober from the early 1990s combines a rather chunky Saks Fifth Avenue bride (himself) with a headline noting (in case it, too, slipped your mind) that "The Vatican Condones Discrimination Against Homosexuals." Martha Rosler was then in southwest France, interviewing the tenants of Le Corbusier housing for How Do We Know What Home Looks Like? They sound alternately distracted and uncertain, but they were reclaiming an abandoned wing of his model city for themselves. The rest of the show dates from the last few years, but it seems no less caught up in ancient battles over modernist utopias. Visitors will have to be as well, for Rosler refuses narrative structure, and the curator refuses both explanatory text and English subtitles. I get as upset as anyone when the Met buries art in wall text, but this time you had better read a good review first (like mine).

A floor away on video, Neïl Beloufa continues the dialogue over modern real estate in French (this time with titles), with a sales pitch for "a place designed for you." Tamar Guimarães depicts another modernist classic, a 1953 home by Oscar Niemeyer outside Rio. A party is in progress, drifting through its servant's quarters and sculpture garden as if in search of a final resting place. "My house is better, I think," says one guest, but one never knows—for comparisons here do not come easily. The work's odd dispersal alone seems designed to defeat them, in favor of entrapment and displacement. And here, too, "Better Homes" has the virtue of challenging the visitor, but it cannot stop looking in the end for easy answers.

The show revives some decidedly postmodern strategies. Beloufa uses two monitors, set amid almost empty shelves and a Coke can, with the same spiel but out of sync. They transform the museum interior into both an extended stage set and a discarded household, with the viewer caught between, shifting uncertainly in both time and space. Yuki Kimura's photographs on freestanding partitions similarly invoke deconstructive architecture and "home delivery." They could fit right in with the elusive shelters of Sabine Hornig or Andrea Zittel, at the cost of not packing much in the way of politics or feeling. And then the lectures start in earnest.

Wiring Minimalism

The hectoring runs to both the belligerent and the trivial. Carissa Rodriguez's gray abstractions include (seriously) sperm donations like spectral invaders. Photos of cute or cruel kids, Josephine Pryde insists, feel somehow different once one perceives them as adopted. Do they really? If you think so, you will relate to Anthea Hamilton and her black Kabuki Chefs (with garlic and artificial lemons), Paulina Olowska's faux eighteenth-century porcelain (from the "Emil Nolde collection"), or Jonathas de Andrade's cool and cryptic furniture designs. You will find a threat in Kirsten Pieroth's rotting designer eggs and goblets fashioned from the bottom of plastic soda bottles (the size that Michael Bloomberg might want to ban), Güneş Terkol's woven silhouettes of old fears projected onto old role models, and Keith Edmier's basalt human hearts in a lead coffin or jewel case.

Others will be less sure. They may also wonder if one can address the family simply by its omission. Two works try with dolls, in a slide show by KwieKulik (aka Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek) and as a grandmother's "babies" for LaToya Ruby Frazier. The show also includes Frazier's amazing photographs of the ruins of steel country, although who is to say that they ever felt like home? And here, too, the show's frame defeats the artist, for her work describes factories and communities, not just homes. "Better Homes" squeezes all these artists in, often against their will, while never accounting for all that it leaves out.

from Tamar Guimaraes's Canoas (Galeria Fortes Vilaca, Sao Paulo, 2010)I had just come from Christopher K. Ho's riffs on modern furniture on the Lower East Side, as an imagined setting for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. And I cannot even begin to count contemporary art's riffs on family and love. "Better Homes" all but dispenses with them, perhaps to insist on how irrelevant they have become. For all its global cast, it ends up in a place so dated and remote as to have little to do with home. Hamilton posed his question about today's homes for a 1956 exhibition, "This Is Tomorrow." This, I kept thinking, is yesterday.

Sure, follow the money, but irony is already old news. Critics pounced on Dan Colen at Gagosian and the old porno paintings of Jeff Koons, because it is now entirely safe to do so. Do I really have to review those shows? No, this is my site, and I do not. Not that a cable or clutter of hyperactive installations has chased away the handmade. After so many art fairs, group shows, and open studios, at times I wish it had.

The Philadelphia Wireman has a slyer way of trashing the gallery. He does not pile on yet another installation or, like "Expo 1: New York" at MoMA PS1, use urban waste as an environmental impact statement. Rather, he keeps it small, with thick wire wrapped around other odds and ends—some of them wrappers and packing materials themselves. It is as if Christo had been wrapped. The anonymous scavenger shares the show with an old master as photo collage by Vic Muniz, who apparently obtained his industrial fragments this time in Pennsylvania, too. The answer to his riddle is a hoary painting by J. A. D. Ingres, The Riddle of the Sphinx.

The thing itself

Art can offer moments of contemplation or transcendence, an intuition of something unseen. The very term abstraction implies a movement away from the concrete and the commodity and toward the essential. Yet one can feel that same movement in a pair of stones, a broomstick, a broken glass, or a tangle of string. One can attend to light reflected off plywood or shadowy impressions on paper, a bookshelf's arrangement of memories or remnants of a cigarette break. So, at any rate, might run an abstract of "Aspects, Forms, and Figures."

The stones appear in a photograph by Adelina Lopes, Anthony Pearson's shadows derive from objects placed on photosensitive paper, and Alice Könitz's Circle Lamp of polished plywood and paper would look at home amid Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus. Mostly, however, the group show turns on assemblages of humble materials—the abstract everyday. Jonah Groeneboer's string traverses a corner of the ceiling, but it resembles a game of cat's cradle more than an Eva Hesse. The shelf of books, driftwood, and a found image by Carol Bove reassembles a cheap apartment into a miniature museum of natural history. For all his smooth, black stone, the sculpted man by Nathan Mabry can barely suppress a smile. Even Christopher Deeton's black-and-white paintings derive their symmetry less from Ad Reinhardt and Reinhardt's black paintings than an ink blot.

The show's success lies in its humility and a healthy sense of humor. I suspect the curators want something more—more than a Rorschach test for the buyer's esthetic impulse. João Ribas and Becky Smith describe a search for the "archaic, noumenal, and totemic." They quote Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto sits atop a broomstick thanks to Stephen G. Rhodes. Marx is describing how an object acquires an aura by becoming a commodity, not a bad lesson for the art market now. He does not see the commodity fetish as continuous with religious rituals, although he has equal contempt for the illusions in both.

Modernism had its seekers of the "perfect moment," and many abstract and figurative artists alike still know when to capture the light. Many still go to art for a Romantic's sense of beauty, or else they whine about its loss. However, abstraction long ago lost its literal meaning, and today abstraction can include imagery. If anything, abstract artists after Minimalism have had their hands full struggling against a fixation on the object. One or two here, too, struggle too hard. The token older works, by Jack Goldstein and John McCracken, look particularly out of place, although McCracken's usual leaning plank gets a helpful, almost comical splatter of paint.

More often, the show's sense of proportion saves it from any number of dogmas, including its own. Lopes smashed her two panes of glass and then carefully reassembled them. I imagine her afraid of leaving too big a mess or too much reverence for Robert Smithson. Könitz's Table for a Family of Three Smokers consists of ashtrays set out according to a spare, off-kilter grid that Peter Halley might have drawn. All in all, enough objects lie about that one might quote William Carlos Williams after all: "No ideas but in things."

Marx might not find himself all that happy with such exhibitions, and each in its own way might agree with him. Is art a conspicuously upscale object of consumption? Bauhaus explained how to make art on the cheap, contemporary artists how to turn it into a thesis topic. Each, in turn, projects an idealism I can only love but cannot so easily share. Is the market making us stupid? Not necessarily, but it is putting a lot of pressure on art to know when it is selling out.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Better Homes" ran at SculptureCenter, through July 22, 2013, Christopher K. Ho at Y Gallery through May 4, and the Philadelphia Wireman and Vic Muniz at Invisible-Exports through July 13, 2013. "Aspects, Forms, and Figures" ran at Bellwether through March 10, 2007. A related review covers several group shows on the theme of everyday abstraction or the abstract everyday.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME